By Halliburton, Rachel
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 134, No. 4735
In 1937, Orson Welles presented Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as a terrifying vision of the consequences of fascist rule, in a production menacingly subtitled Death of a Dictator. It was a breathtaking update of a play that for centuries has lent itself to both political and personal manipulation. In the 1770s, Americans forgave Shakespeare for being a Brit and used it as an inspirational text for US independence. An Italian production in the 1990s featured endoscopes, mechanical animals and two anorexic women playing Brutus and Cassius. This year, a political agenda predominates once more. With the consequences of the Iraq invasion hitting the news daily, it is--according to the director Deborah Warner--"a screamingly good moment to look at the play".
As Warner prepares to reveal her own interpretation at the Barbican, she is not surprised that another production--featuring Denzel Washington as Brutus--is opening in New York. "In times of crisis, we go back to the strong texts," she says. Yet, despite being struck by Julius Caesar's renewed relevance, she is refusing to yield to the temptation of creating overt political parallels. "The play has suffered in the past because people have tried to swing it in one direction or another," she protests. "So I'm not, for instance, trying to compare Caesar with Bush--it just wouldn't work. Caesar was a brilliant strategist. Bush rigged a couple of elections."
On the other hand, for her modern-dress production, Warner believes that "the Blair/Brutus comparison is very interesting. What this play deals with is people making difficult decisions, and being forced to go through with the consequences once their initial conviction has gone. It is left open whether Rome has been served positively or negatively by Caesar's death. But what is clear is that when Shakespeare looks at the consequences of violent conflict, he reveals that the act of murder is always catastrophic."
Theatre companies are now so desperate to be politically relevant that it can only be a matter of time before A Midsummer Night's Dream: the Guantanamo Bay version opens, but there is no danger that Warner's production will sink beneath the weight of right-on didacticism. Few directors are so passionately diligent in their excavation of classical texts that centuries-old emotions suddenly become painfully raw again. Warner's Titus Andronicus in 1987 caused audience members to faint, and one critic described her now legendary first collaboration with Fiona Shaw on Electra as "debilitatingly intense". In 2001, the London Evening Standard paid tribute to the impact of her collaborative work with Shaw when they won Best Director and Best Actress awards for a production that shunned the stereotype of Medea as a screeching, child-murdering witch and reinvented her as a distraught romantic in a black cocktail dress.
Part of Warner's power is that nobody--not even Warner herself--can predict exactly what emotional or physical journey her next production will take them on. In 1995, the St Pancras Project had audiences trooping through the abandoned Midland Grand Hotel on "a fantastical walk" next to St Pancras Station in central London. …